In state government under Gov. Janet Mills, Maine’s farmland, forests and wildlife are now in the hands of women leaders.
Recently a visitor to Judy Camuso’s office said something she definitely hadn’t expected to hear. “I did an interview the other day, the reporter came in and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were so pretty,’” Camuso says. This remark, intended as a compliment (although not one women need or usually want at work) has probably never been said to a Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“I have so many stories of people thinking I’m a wife or a teacher or a secretary,” Camuso says. She’s not new to the department, having joined it in 2007 as an assistant state regional biologist. When Gov. Janet Mills appointed her commissioner, she’d been serving as a wildlife division director since 2013. That too was a first for a woman.
“It’s almost worse now that I’m commissioner,” Camuso says. “I get so many comments. The public is used to dealing with men. If you talk to women in engineering, construction, the research sciences—they all deal with this same thing. It’s not your coworkers, who know your skills and capabilities. It’s almost 100% external.”
But she adds, “Being commissioner is an opportunity to break down those kinds of obstacles and behaviors.”
Commissioner. Director. Governor. In the most gender diverse state administration Maine has ever seen, women hold eight cabinet appointments. These include top positions at the Departments of Education; Labor; Health and Human Services; Economic and Community Development; Administrative and Financial Services; and Professional and Financial Regulation. In the area of natural resources, with the exception of the Department of Marine Resources, all departments are headed by women: Camuso at Inland Fisheries, Commissioner Amanda Beal at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Patty Cormier, the director of the Maine Forest Service.
That’s a lot of chances to break down obstacles and behaviors. Cormier is the second woman to serve as director of the Maine Forest Service, but another kind of first. When Cormier started her career with the state, Susan J. Bell was director. Bell was many things—former teacher, state representative and deputy commissioner—but she was not a licensed forester. “So, I’m the first female Maine State Forester,” she says. She was shocked to be asked.
“The first time I even had an inkling, I was at a workshop in Wilton. A master logger came up to me and said, ‘I heard your name floated for director.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ You feel like, ‘I’m not qualified for that.’ Being asked is a huge compliment.”
It’s such a compliment that Amanda Beal left a coveted position as president and chief executive officer of Maine Farmland Trust, a job she’d hoped to have for a long time, to head the state’s agriculture department. “It sounds cliché, but I felt called to serve,” Beal says.
“It’s so important that we have a strong agriculture and forestry economy—those industries are really the backbone of so many communities,” Beal says. “For a long time, our economy was based on what was cheapest. Now there’s a lot more awareness. The idea of knowing who your farmer is—people are a lot more conscious of the impact that their dollar has.”
“One of the challenges I’m really interested in is how do we get more high-quality food to Maine people? Ninety percent of the food that we eat in Maine is imported, which means that most of what we grow leaves the state. At the same time, we have many communities with high rates of food insecurity—we need to find ways to close this loop.”
“I think you will see a lot of new collaboration and partnerships,” says Camuso, when asked how DIF&W will work differently under Mills. “The governor wants to forge new relationships. I attended the Opioid Summit last week. Before, people might have asked: what is the commissioner of Fisheries and Wildlife doing there? But we have 124 law enforcement officers [Maine State Game Wardens] that are here to help and are a valuable asset.”
Of the many issues that Beal, Camuso and Cormier will be working on together, climate change is among the biggest challenges, each says. All three will be attending Mills’ newly created Climate Council. Says Beal, “This is an issue that is cross-cutting.”
“Climate change is the biggest threat that we’re all facing,” says Camuso. “There’s no question about that. It’s impacting wildlife already—just look at moose survival and tick loads. There’s bird migrations and the phenology of when trees and other plants flower and leaf out—the insects these birds rely on aren’t there because trees are flowering earlier. The landscape is shifting. Warmer temperatures are conducive to disease and parasites. There are so many issues that are climate related that we are dealing with. There’s short-term work to be done, and long-term plans. Maybe we’ll have different plant and animal species. We need to start talking about that as a possibility and planning for it.”
Generational change and the need to train and replace Maine’s future workforce are another common theme. “We need the next generation,” says Beal. “It’s very clear that we have a real need for replacement farmers for those who are retiring. There is a lot of land in Maine poised to change hands.”
“About 30% of our current staff are eligible to retire in about five years,” Camuso says. On top of that, in terms of gender, “there’s still a big gap in our department. Of 124 law enforcement officers, only three are women. We have 45 fisheries biologists and only four are women. The ratios are better in wildlife—maybe 50-50. But in the other areas we just don’t get the applications [from women].”
It’s the same in her field, Cormier says. While more women are becoming forest landowners, “the needle has not moved” in the forestry and forest products industries, she says. “It’s not a traditional career for a woman. All of the natural resources are struggling to get people in, and where it’s a non-traditional career, it can be even harder.”
“I would say to young women: This is a fantastic job,” says Camuso. She’s been a wildlife biologist for 20 years. “I don’t know too many other jobs where you have the opportunity to be outside year round and have a positive impact on the animals and activities you’re passionate about. Since I’ve worked in wildlife I’ve never got the Sunday Dreads. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t days that are difficult—but overall, I love this job and my work.” She pauses and adds, “Plus, everywhere I go I have binoculars and no one makes fun of me.”
But both Camuso and Cormier acknowledge that it’s not always easy to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Cormier talks about living in Princeton, Maine, when she was a fresh-out-of-college forester with the Georgia Pacific Company.
“I would say to young women: This is a fantastic job. I don’t know too many other jobs where you have the opportunity to be outside year round and have a positive impact on the animals and activities you’re passionate about.”
“I was 22 or 23. I was living up there with my husband, who was a full-time firefighter for the state. One day the local fire chief came to the house and he invited my husband to join the department. I was standing there and said, ‘I’d like to be a firefighter,’ and the chief said, ‘Oh, that’s great! We have an association where you can bake cookies.’”
Breaking down barriers is something Mills has been doing for decades. In 1977, disturbed that a piece of legislation written to fund shelters for women and children affected by domestic violence failed to pass the Maine Legislature, nine women gathered in Mills’s living room. She was 30 years old.
“They vowed that never again would there not be representation for Maine women at the State House,” says Kathy Durgin-Leighton, executive director at the Maine Women’s Lobby, which was formed by Mills and her colleagues as a result of their pledge. “Given Gov. Mills’ early commitment to Maine women, it is no surprise that she appointed so many women to her administration and to historically male-dominated positions and departments.”
“Every time I work with Gov. Mills, I’m enamored by her,” Camuso says of her boss. “She’s so smart and witty and amazing. I’m honored to serve for her.”
With their first legislative session finished, all three women say they are glad they will be able to spend more time meeting with constituents and staff. “The focus for me will be getting out with Maine Forest Service staff including the unit rangers, foresters, entomologists,” says Cormier. “People don’t call up the director and say, ‘Hey, I have a really good idea’—that’s not how that works. When you go out and work with people, that’s when you get good ideas about how to do things more efficiently, better.” She says she doesn’t see herself or the directorship as the top of a pyramid. “I really see this as everyone’s position. I’m at the bottom, and everyone else is above me—like a funnel.”
Cormier is optimistic about the future of the forest industry in Maine. “I see opportunity in laminated timbers, biofuels, and cardboard—you know, for all those boxes we order from Amazon. And there’s been a lot of new investment in Maine mills. Nine Dragons [Paper Holdings] has put a lot of money into Old Town and Rumford.”
When asked about the risk involved with leaving her former job for the uncertainty of a politically appointed position, Camuso says she didn’t hesitate.
“I always wanted to be commissioner, from the day I started working here. There was never any question. I love the agency’s mission and the people. As soon as Gov. Mills was elected, I wanted to be her commissioner. When they called me, I was like, ‘Hell yeah! Absolutely.’ But, yeah, I do have some anxiety about what I will do in four to eight years. My whole career has been in wildlife.”
“I don’t have other skills,” she jokes. “Hopefully being commissioner will help me with that.”
“In terms of having three years,” Cormier says, “I don’t think about it. There are so many variables—I can’t get caught up in it. I’m the least political person. That’s part of why I was asked. I’m in it for the people of Maine and the forests.”
“Basically, I said to myself, ‘If I’m not willing to take this risk, why would I expect anyone else to?’” says DACF Commissioner Beal. “Not knowing where you are going to be in three to four years—that’s the nature of life.”
Erica Cassidy Dubois works in the woods and writes about rural Maine. She lives in Bangor.